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Category: Theology of the Cross


Francis Holl, Jesus is Tempted by Satan in the Wilderness, Command This Stone That It be Made Bread

“I did not learn my theology all at once, but had to search constantly
deeper and deeper for it. My temptations did that for me, for no one
can understand Holy Scripture without practice and temptations.
This is what the enthusiasts and sects lack. They don’t have the right critic, the devil, who is the best teacher of theology. If we don’t have
that kind of devil, then we become nothing but speculative
theologians, who do nothing but walk around in our own thoughts
and speculate with our reason alone as to whether things should be
like this, or like that”

-Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:50

What is the purpose of the Holy Spirit?  Many people in church believe that the Holy Spirit is the one who gives you the warm and fuzzy feelings of God’s presence.  He is the one who unlocks your ability to be completely open in worship.  The Holy Spirit is all about your feelings.

These ideas of the Holy Spirit are in contrast to the art and the quote from Luther above.  In the artwork, we find Jesus being sent into the desert after His baptism; after the Father says He is “well-pleased” with Jesus; after the Holy Spirit descends on Him like a dove.

Matthew tells us, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1).  In fact, Jesus was sent to the desert for 40 days, and then tempted by the devil.  Why would the Spirit do such a thing?

And, then, we read the above quote from Luther, who Kleinig quotes, “In a
lecture on Psalm 5:11, from around 1520, he [Luther] asserted, rather bluntly, that a theologian was not made by ‘understanding, reading or speculating,’
but by ‘living, no rather by dying and being damned'” (John W. Kleinig, Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: What Makes A Theologian?, 2).

Wow!  First, We learned of Oratio, or speaking the Word.  Then, we learned of meditatio, or ruminating on the Word.  But this last one seems to be the opposite of what we would expect.  Where is the praise?  Where is the comfort?  Where is the blessing?  In short, where is the GLORY?

Are we Christians living under the false belief that the Holy Spirit will lead us to “safe harbors” all the time?  Are we ignoring the Scripture in favor of feelings?  Are we wishful thinkers who would rather believe that God is going to give us a happy life than the one Jesus suffered through?

Or, are we suffering so much now that we seek an alternate experience to the difficulties of life?  Maybe we long for heaven on earth.  Maybe we long for ecstasy.  Maybe we long for glory.

Instead, God leads Jesus (and us, metaphorically, perhaps exactly) to a cross.  God leads Him into temptation and trial.  God leads Him into suffering.

Jeffrey Ware notes, “Tentatio (sufferings and temptation) is a form of spiritual attack which drives the believer away from the internalized self to the external word.  Tentatio is not a goal.  It is not the highest rung on a spiritual ladder to heaven.  It is God’s way of turning self-seeking men back to the word and therefore back to himself” (in A Lutheran Perspective on Lectio Divina).

As Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).  Why?  Because it is the way that God drives us back to the Scripture.  It is the way He drives us to depend on this Word.  It is the way He gets us to look more closely, more deeply into that Word to find Christ, the suffering servant.

And it is a strange spirituality, because, in the midst of trial and temptation, we often find the deepest fellowship and peace with God.  It is the paradox of the Christian life.  Isn’t this appropriate as we walk through this lenten season?

Jesus is the Gospel

The gospel is not:  a decision to receive, believe, retrieve your own personal Jesus.

The gospel is not: making Him Lord, re-dedicating your life, saying a “sinner’s prayer”

In fact, the Gospel is completely outside of your (or my) activity.

The Gospel is ALL God’s activity through Jesus Christ.

What is ‘Gospel’?  It means ‘Good News’.

It is Jesus dying on the cross for your sin and my sin, and being raised in resurrection, so we can have the gift of resurrection in Him.

What’s the bad news?

First, the world is fallen and it can’t get up

Second, the devil is a fallen angel, not an archaic, pre-logical myth

Third, we have fallen into our coffin, and are bound to a horrible eternal end unless there’s an intervention

In other words, the situation is hopeless.

God loves hopeless situations.

God loves hopeless sinners.

Because Jesus was given as a sacrifice for sin.  He came to seek and save that which was lost.  Jesus came for sinners (including me).

And, He continues to be the good news for us.

When we confess our sin (not a feeling), He is faithful and just to forgive us based on His bloody death.

When we have doubt (by the way, doubt means you have faith to begin with), He remains faithful as a priest before the Father in Heaven.

When we are hungry for good news, we can find it in the promise that God has sent a deliverer in Jesus.  He hasn’t come for “good people”, but for those who have no hope in themselves.

He is hope fulfilled.  Both now and forever.  Amen.

Working out your self-deification with arrogance and boasting

When I was in high school, I worked as a stage hand one semester.  I was in the background, helping to move stage elements.  We changed backdrops, moved furniture, and moved props.

We got to see everything back there.  The audience, though, was unaware of anything but what they saw in front of them.

This is true for our view of the world, too.  Most people are largely unaware of what “backdrops” are behind their thinking.  It’s too much work to figure it out.  It’s more fun just to watch the play.

Our view of the purpose of the Bible is also influenced by our background beliefs.  Everyone comes to it with beliefs/perspectives of what it’s about.  And, if they don’t have any prior experience with it, they soon become aware that it talks a lot about commands, God, promises, war, sex, death, resurrection, angels and other “religious stuff”.

This helps to explain the differences in denominations.  If you go to a church, you probably accept their “backdrop” explanation of the purpose of the Bible.

But, is it correct?  Have you ever considered that conservative Christians (not talking politically here) have legitimate and valid differences concerning the purpose of the Bible?

One of the current “backdrops” is called “Lordship Salvation”.  It assumes that the Bible is a book of rules that we must follow perfectly otherwise we are not true disciples.  Christians in these churches assume that their church is “Biblical”.  They assume that Christians in other churches are weak or disobedient.  They assume this because this is the result of what they believe about the Bible and the Christian life.

Where does this belief come from?  Why do people believe that once they “receive Jesus” or “repent and believe” (as the Lordship Salvation camp would say), they must “get to work”, “live obediently” and “put your nose to the grindstone”?  Why does the Christian life return to me and my works?

Simple.  This is the theology of the Old Adam.  It is a theology that denies  the Lordship of Christ.  The Old Man denies that Christ is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).  He denies John 6:28-29 which the disciples ask, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” The Old Adam denies Hebrews 10:10 which states, “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

And in so denying that these verses are for Christians, the Old Adam denies Christ, Himself.  The Old Adam replaces Jesus with his own works, effort and obedience.  The Old Adam works to keep himself alive rather than submit to the crucifixion of Jesus as both the one who births faith in us and feeds faith through the means of grace.

The Old Adam is busy keeping himself as god.  He is his own lord.  He lives a blasphemous life.

And because of the extreme moral demands of Lordship Salvation, Christians under this theology can go only three directions:

In the first option, they can become self-righteous, arrogant about their relationship with God, and in denial about the depth of God’s demands on their lives.  This person is willing to judge others harshly and never examine his/her own life in light of the “full thundering” of the Law.  They become deeply judgmental, lacking any love.

In the second option, the Christian of sensitive conscience is thrown into despair about their salvation.  Martin Luther, the great reformer, fell into this camp when the terrors of Roman Catholic theology scared him into a monastery to find peace.  Eventually, these Christians will either leave the church, or have their faith shipwrecked.  Some of these people become hopeless and becomes agnostics/atheists because of the lack of mercy in these church bodies.

In the third option, they can remain superficial, never taking any of it seriously, and covering up with a false edifice.

There is a fourth option, however.  Along with many other who have escaped the clutches of Lordship Salvation, I encountered a completely different backdrop when I read Martin Luther.  Because I had lived in both the first and second options, Luther’s Bondage of the Will was like a key to open the prison door I lived in.

His view was that we begin and end with Christ when it comes to the Christian life.  In Biblical terms, that means that Jesus retains His lordship as the Alpha and the Omega.  We are to come to church to hear “Christ crucified” rather than the “ten steps to overcoming sin”.

This is a theology of reception.  It is a theology that believes that God is at work on and in us, and that it is His pleasure to do so.

It is a theology that views the Scripture as the manger in which we find the Christ-child.  He is the heart of its meaning, purpose and proclamation.  Read Hebrews.  Is it about you or about Jesus?  Read the Gospel from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  Is it about you or Jesus?

And, having this “cross theology” also means that we interpret the Bible as being Law or Gospel.  This means that God’s demands reveal our inherent sinfulness, but God has provided His own Son to fulfill ALL of these demands and cleanse us from ALL sin.  Even the sin of trying to be your/my own God.

Why does He do this?  Look at Romans 3:

 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

 Acts 4:12 states; “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” No other name, not even your own.

To the Glory of His Holy Lordship, Amen.

Thousands of denominations; only two theologies

When I was a student in college, I took a class on the Protestant Faith.  At that time (more than 20 years ago), there were over 3,000 christian denominations in the United States alone. This is overwhelming.

In truth, however, there are only two theologies in the entire world; the theology of glory and the theology of the cross.  Martin Luther outlined the differences in the 28 theses (arguments) he made at Heidelberg, known as the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518.  Although he was writing against Roman Catholic errors, these can also be applied to modern American church errors.  The following are the first four arguments:

  1. The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
  2. Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end.
  3. Although the works of man always appear attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.
  4. Although the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.

For a full treatment (and an edifying, if not challenging read), please see Gerhard Forde’s, On Being a Theologian of the Cross.

Happy Reformation Day!

Jesus: peacemaker or instigator?

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”  -Matthew 5:9

The above passage is taken from  the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel.  The quote is a strong contrast with the book, as a whole, because Jesus gets into so many conflicts in Matthew.  In fact, five chapters later, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).

What’s going on here?  These two statements seem to be in conflict with one another.  The question you might ask (of course, not out loud in case someone should hear us), “Is Jesus a hypocrite?” Is He another Teddy Roosevelt to whom is attributed, “Talk softly and carry a big stick“?  If the peacemaker is blessed, what of Jesus?  Is He cursed?

Matthew hardly makes it easier for us.  Jesus is shown, time after time, disturbing people.  Nice people.  Business people.  Religious people.  His neighbors as He was growing up.  But why?  Was He some political provocateur?  Was He a religious fanatic?  Was He a fringe lunatic bent on undermining local economies (think of the seafood restaurants He would put out of business if He kept multiplying fish and loaves!).

Matthew 8:28-34 records Jesus casting demons out of two men.  They are sent into swine, leaping from a steep bank and heading into the sea. The locals are worried about their economy, and ask Jesus to leave.

Chapter 13:53-58 records Jesus visiting Nazareth, and “they took offense at Him” (vs. 57)

Chapters 12, 15, 16, 19, 21, 22, 23, 26 (The Plot to Kill Jesus, in my Bible), and 27 record conflicts with the religious leaders.

Why so many conflicts when Jesus is clearly here to bring peace?  Why wasn’t He a better Beatitude -bearer?  The answer can be found in two places.

First, Jesus Christ preached a righteousness that took no account of a person’s status.  He spoke of things being hidden from the wise, but revealed to children (11:25).  Even His actions, like casting out demons in men afflicted and without ability to free themselves pointed to the coming of God’s Kingdom and the power, authority and mercy of God in Christ.

Second, the people He was in conflict with were … invested.  The business people were invested in their livestock (it was their living).  The religious leaders were invested in their self-righteousness which came through the keeping of the Law and traditions.

The latter group could not even consider Jesus’ proposals because it would mean the loss of their status.  It would mean that they had become renegades.  They would lose their life.  The rich young ruler in Matthew 19 understood this well; “he went away grieved”.

The Gospel of the Kingdom is Jesus, Himself.  He is the good news that God has condescended to become a man, live the perfect life for us, die a perfect death, and suffer through persecution, hatred, and wrongful execution so that we might be given the whole Kingdom as heirs!  He has ended God’s conflict with man by receiving the judgment of God in His body.  He has justified us, sanctified us, and even calls us His brothers (and sisters)!  And, that is still not the whole of the good news.  He was resurrected.  Death does not reign over us any more.  Jesus is our peace!

But, persecution will be our present and future in this world.  Even the most “Christian” people will call those who bear the fully free Gospel of Jesus Christ heretics and false teachers.  They will war against anything that threatens their spiritual investment in themselves.

And, you and I are ‘investors’ too.  We have invested in morality, thinking it is an acceptable sacrifice before God.  We have invested in the belief that the hours of participation in the church will contribute to our goodness.  We have invested in our theology believing it is the “right belief”, and judge all others to be wrong.  We invest in our abilities, intelligence, strength, convictions,  service and our feelings.  But, these investments reject the cross.

Look through the gospels.  Who are the ones who accepted Jesus?  You will find that God’s mercy is for those who have no other choice.  They are the ‘sinners’ of the New Testament.  They have “bottomed out”.  They need an intervention.

As Kretzmann wrote of Matthew 5:3, the poor in spirit: “He is speaking of the poor and miserable “in spirit,” those that shrink and cower with fear and dread, that are tremblingly alive to the wants and needs of their soul, that feel in their own heart, so far as spiritual riches are concerned, nothing but a great void, a despair of their own abilities” (http://kretzmannproject.org/)

And, unless we become sinners too, the intervention of the cross won’t do us any good.

But, Jesus has come to end our dependence upon our investments.  He has come to kill the Old Adam and the Old Eve.  He has come to rescue you and I from all of your sins and mine.  He has come to rescue us from ourselves.

So, as Luther put it, “join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard- boiled sinners” (WPD, 106).  Come to be forgiven again.  Come to receive mercy.  Come to receive eternal love and peace.   “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) Come to Jesus who has invested everything … in you.

God’s mercy, grace and peace,


Hiding our face from the cross

I try to read from the Bible every day.  Currently, I am reading Romans.  Sometimes, the letters of the New Testament contain some pretty thick theology, and I return to more narrative parts of the Bible (let’s face it, stories are an easier read).

I always like to go back to the gospel accounts.  The miracles, preaching and wisdom of Jesus engage me.  It’s all good stuff, and I feel good reading it.  But, in the back of my mind, I know there’s a crucifixion coming.  He’s going to be beaten, spat upon, rejected, crucified, and He will die.  It’s my natural inclination to want to speed through this portion of Scripture.

I don’t want to “see” a bloodied Jesus.  I don’t want to see human cruelty.  I don’t want to see torture and execution (on a cross).  I don’t want to see the humiliation of my Lord.  But, it’s there.  God had it recorded not once or twice, but four times.  Each gospel writer gives us an account of this event.  And all other events leading up to this appear to happen very quickly in comparison to the slow, arduous chapters depicting His death.  It’s as if the authors grab us from the back of the head and push our faces into Jesus’ death.  They don’t want us to miss the impact of it.

The reason I want to turn away from this “movie” of His death is because I don’t want to remember that it was my sin that caused it.  I want the Jesus who is happy with me.  I want the one who is my brother.  I want the one who feeds me my daily bread, teaches me doctrine, brings me to remember upbeat spiritual songs.  The other vision is much too depressing.

Perhaps this is why so many Christians reject the image of the crucifix.  We’re o.k. with a picture of Jesus talking with the children or breaking the loaves, but Jesus on a cross?  It’s too gruesome.  It’s … offensive.

And that’s exactly what the cross is!  This is what God wants us to look at, again and again.  It tells us that the sum of our best Christian works amount to the death of God.  We can sanitize, clean up and white wash the death of Jesus.  Or, like most in the church, we can just bypass it like a freeway driver getting a glimpse of an accident.

But, this is not the message handed down from the apostles.  Paul states, “We preach Christ and Him crucified”.  So, look again.  Look at the cross which ended our Lord’s life.  Look at the wounds that healed us.  Look at the thorn-crowned head which bore the pain of knowing all our intimate sins … intimately!

If you want to know that Jesus loves you, look up to the man on the cross between two criminals.  Look at the man who the Father was pleased to crush.  Look at the man who bore the weight of our guilt.  He is the one who takes upon Himself all of our sin, even the sin of looking away from Him!  His love for you and me empowered Him to endure rejection, beating, crucifixion and the Wrath of God so that we would … we will never have to.

He has saved us from our sins, and given us eternal life.  It’s the promise secured in His blood.

To God be the Glory both now and forever.

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